With each new main-series Super Mario title comes an expectation to somehow substantially raise the bar for platform-based gaming in a way that elicits squeals of elation from anyone with an appetite for pixelated excellence and an all-around mirthful gameplay experience. Whether it be draped in a 2D or a 3D overlay, every fresh non-spinoff Super Mario game has, in some way, shape, or form, done just that by introducing truly intuitive, endlessly inventive physics that amaze with their complexity by cutting-edge design, but also frequently stun developers and hardcore gamers alike, often prompting the very valid question, “Why the hell hasn’t anyone done this before?” The answer is, quite simply, because they’re not Nintendo.
Super Mario 3D Land, the first official Super Mario game to appear on the 3DS, isn’t an entry into the core Super Mario canon that I would instantaneously label as groundbreaking. Even with its consistently smart usage of the 3DS’s dually autostereoscopic/gyroscopic tricks and graphical capabilities (the amount of hidden objects and pathways sprinkled throughout this game is staggering), there are very few moments that feel like something I’ve never experienced before in an all-around platformer (for example, like how the Super Mario Galaxy installments manipulated the formerly limited functions of continuously flowing multi-planed interactive spaces so flawlessly). However, what SM3DL does do that makes it a worthy successor to Super Mario Galaxy 2 and a fine inaugural Super Mario 3DS game is that it meshes together nearly all the primary successful elements of main-series Super Mario efforts released since Super Mario 64, incorporating aesthetics from the unfairly despised Super Mario Sunshine on through New Super Mario Bros. Wii and the Galaxy duo to amount to an incredibly refined, wonderfully paced balancing act of Nintendo hallmarks both vintage and avant-garde.
Anyone who claims to appreciate Super Mario games solely for their storylines is either a bold-faced liar or an altogether anomaly. SM3DL sticks to the time-tested “Bowser once again kidnaps Princess Peach” scenario, but, much like the Galaxy pair before it, adds an additional story-based gameplay detail that makes the title stand out from its current-gen brethren. Oddly enough, the aspect of SM3DL that’s its most apparent allurement is an invention from one of Mario’s past adventures: the striped Super Leaf that transforms our favorite Italian plumber into Tanooki Mario from Super Mario Bros. 3. In SM3DL, a whole mess of Tanooki Leafs are unceremoniously dispelled throughout the game’s various worlds, causing random enemies like Goombas and Boos to sprout signature cutesy raccoon tails; even the mighty Bowser is outfitted with a supersized variation of the now-iconic appendage, and he occasionally takes advantage of its range during combat. As you may recall, transforming into Tanooki Mario allows for long-distance vaults and a descending glide ability, and a considerable amount of the game’s scattered secrets can be more easily obtained while donning it. Collectable Star Coins necessary for 100% completion from New Super Mario Bros. Wii return (except here, they’re called Star Medals) as prominent items in SM3DL, and reaching the tip-top of goal-area flagpoles earns you a coveted golden flag; the Tanooki Suit more often than not is necessary to procure both of these prizes.
SM3DL’s environmental structure is a near-perfect fusion of roaming open-world, level-style Mario games like 64, Sunshine, and the Galaxy pair and go-from-point-A-to-B classic Super Mario titles. There’s no Power Star hunting here, but many of the game’s levels are quite massive and offer a stunning number of different routes to the finish line. As is customary, warp pipes are all over the place, and a variety of varying floating blocks act as teleportation devices to both bonus mid-course minigames and other sections of the level. Throughout my protracted playtime, it routinely amazed me just how many types of platforming cornerstones are embedded within SM3DL. In fact, despite its relatively short initial playthrough length (if you avoid the bulk of the side quest-esque endeavors), it just might be the most jam-packed Super Mario title out there in terms of modifiable replay value. Once you beat the game’s first eight worlds, a secondary, more challenging eight open up (quickness plays a larger role; time is of the essence). Once a certain objective is reached in the post-game, yes, you can play as Mario’s oft-disrespected, slippery-footed, hover-hopping sibling Luigi. (In all honesty, I prefer the emerald-clad brother to the scarlet one.)
In addition to the commonplace Super Mushroom, Fire Flower, and Starman power-ups, a few brand-new accoutrements bloom in SM3DL. For decades, the Boomerang Bro adversaries have been a perpetual annoyance in the Super Mario games, and now, with the introduction of the cleverly crafted Boomerang Flower, the player can make like Young Link and toss their very own curved, air-based battle instrument to and fro at forthcoming enemies. Boomerang Mario requires a bit more finesse than fellow projectile-launching permutation Fire Mario, but because the boomerang returns to you, it allows for some nicely timed backup when more than a few foes are gunning for you. There’s also the nifty Propeller Block, which, when climbed inside, gives Mario a double jump that sends him rocketing skyward. If you just so happen to fail a stage five times in a row, the Invincibility Leaf box materializes at your last checkpoint. Taking the form of a sparkling, ivory Tanooki Suit Mario, it renders you permanently impervious to damage, making it essentially impossible for you not to reach your final destination while wearing it. (However, if you do see the Invincibility Leaf box appear, that means your likelihood of achieving 100% completion has decreased to zero, as the latterly earned accolades adorning your save file will not be suitably shimmering. Cue a warranted sad face and restart.)
If there’s one half-star-subtracting fault in SM3DL (I could care less about the lack of revolutionary Street Pass functionality), it’s that its boss battles are probably the most uninspired the series has produced in ages. Good ’ol Boom Boom from Super Mario Bros. 3 acts as a pre-Bowser henchman, spinning around in an enclosed room until becoming too dizzy, inviting three offensive attacks before bursting into a pile of coins. Pinkish, ponytailed Pom Pom is apparently the female counterpart of Boom Boom, and she attempts to add challenge to her fights by tossing boomerangs at you, but her assault patterns can be decrypted by even the most novice player. The equally lackadaisical duels with Bowser basically consist of you running away from his fireballs and claw swipes in an attempt to reach a bridge-collapsing button before he destroys you. This is disappointing, because if Nintendo was able to replicate the magnificent boss battles exhibited in the Galaxy titles on a handheld system, I wouldn’t hesitate in elevating SM3DL to tour-de-force status; the graphical prowess is essentially intact. Regardless, SM3DL is as good a reason as any to purchase a 3DS. The game doesn’t quite raise the bar, but it unquestionably polishes it to a glowing gleam.